The Healthy Housekeeper

Hiking with the family

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For cheap or free outings during the summer, there’s nothing to beat hiking through the countryside with the kids. So what do you need to think about when planning a trip? Well, first of all you have to plan a route that would be worthy of Goldilocks – not too long, not too short, and with plenty to see and do on the way. Surprisingly, most children can manage an hour’s hiking from the age of about 3, which should involve about 2 miles if it is flat. If you train them up well, then they can easily manage half day hikes from about the age of 7 or 8, and full day hikes by secondary school age, hitting these targets even younger if you take them very regularly. For beginners, planning ambitious peak bagging excursions in the Lake District is probably not the best place to start, so you need to think of something a bit more modest. In such cases, riverside hikes can be particularly good, with birds and canal boats to look at, as can hikes around stately homes and reservoirs with tea and cakes afterwards in the cafe. Tuck away a carrier bag or two and towards the end of August, you can even collect some blackberries while you are out.

One of the secrets to success is making sure kids have the right gear on, especially if the ground is uneven or the weather changeable. Proper hiking boots and breathable, waterproof jackets bought second hand off Ebay are a great start, but it that’s too expensive, try making sure they have decent, well-fitting wellingtons with a supportive insole and couple of pairs of socks on, as well as lots of layers that can be stripped off or added to, depending on the weather. Also take a small first aid kit with blister plasters, insect cream, suncream and high energy Lucozade tablets (a great placebo), and pack a small picnic for en route. The ideal picnic includes lots of liquid, for example watered-down fruit juice, wholemeal bread sandwiches for slow energy release, fruit, muesli bars and biscuits. My grandfather used to tuck away a small toblerone for me to eat when we got to the top of a mountain, which was very motivating, and you might like to think about doing something like this as well. Finally, it can be good to give each child their own little backpack for special treasures – favourite fluffy toy, dolls, penknife, binoculars, torch, camera and so on.  Then onwards and maybe even upwards!

Image: Simon Howden /


Do you want to ride your bicycle?

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Here’s a simple check list for getting your bike up and running now it’s the better weather.

You will need

A pump that actually fits your tyres. This might have a little tube thing that comes out of the end and screws onto both  the wheel and the pump, in which case it’s designed for a Schrader valve. If you need to screw the pump straight onto the wheel, and there’s no removable tube thing,  it’s called a Presta valve. Some pumps will have an adaptor so they can be used for both types of valve. Keep it handy in your hallway or garage.

Some WD40 spray oil in a can, or cycle oil.

Batteries for your lights.

A cycle tool or set of hex keys and spanners to fit your bike.

A bucket of warm water, a cleaning cloth, non stick pan scrub and some Cif.

How to do it

1. Wipe down the main areas of your bike with the Cif to remove any mud. Avoid cleaning the chain. Rinse, and polish dry.

2. Tighten up anything that appears to be rattling, reposition anything that seems to be rubbing on things that it shouldn’t. For example, if your brakes are squeaky, it may be that they have got knocked and just easing them to a central position will solve the problem, adjusting the brake pads carefully so they don’t touch the rim of the wheel when in motion, but are near enough to do so if you decide to brake. If your mud guards are rattling, again, ease them into a central position or tighten up any nuts. If your seat or handlebars don’t feel completely secure, a couple of twists with a spanner should do it.

3. Pump up your tyres so you can only just press your thumb into the top where the tread is once they are fully inflated. Don’t overfill them, otherwise the inner tube will burst. If you underinflate them, you will wear the inner tube out.  Get into the habit of pumping them up at least two to three times a week for optimum performance. Carry a small pump with you when cycling for emergencies.

4. Replace the batteries in your lights so they are ready for use and don’t run out unexpectedly.

5. Give the chain a couple of drops of oil, or a spray or two of WD40. You might also do this for your bicycle lock.

Organising family cycling – top tips

Make sure everyone has a parcel carrier and/or a basket so they can carry their own gear, however young they are. Even our smallest child has a basket on the front of his Postman Pat tricycle for his cagoule and teddy.

Teach children independence by getting them to lock up their bikes safely and securely (so they don’t fall over or get knocked) whenever they park them, and attaching the locks to holders on their bikes when they are riding them. Combination locks can be a little unreliable but are easy for children to use, and can be complemented with an adult D-lock on family trips, when you can lock several bikes together.

Have a box with spare pumps, light, batteries and basic repair kit readily to hand, so you can easily repair things if you are in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than embarking on the school run only to realise someone has a flat tyre, but that another family member has lost the only pump.

Make friends with your local bike repair person so they are more willing to mend a flat tyre for you in a hurry.

Children always need to wear helmets, even on bike paths, as they come off more often and hit their heads, and their skulls are soft. Adults need to wear helmets in traffic, or when doing sports cycling, or if unsteady, but statistically are more likely to break an arm or a leg in other cycling accidents, so strictly speaking have more of a choice in whether a helmet is truly necessary for them, depending on a risk assessment of the cycling conditions. Keep your family cycle helmets on a shelf in a row or hanging from a row of hooks, so they are easily accessible.

Image courtesy of

Open Vegetable Gardens Day

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Local author Anna Sugden inviting visitors to view her sweetcorn, carefully interwoven with flowering plants. You can read more about her work at

Today was a big day for local amateur gardeners and allotment owners, as they tentatively allowed visitors in to see their work, all to raise money for gardening tools for the local primary school. It’s rather like the National Gardens Scheme for people who can’t be bothered to have a perfectly manicured lawn, but care more about sustainability instead. We joined in the fun by descending on our neighbours, Anna and Keith Sugden, who have transformed their walled garden into a tribute to creative gardening, in true cottage garden style. Every bed is brimming with flowering plants carefully interspersed with edible delights, so that Anna and Keith can eat something picked from their garden every single day. We ended up making several visits, and many of Anna’s fine  fairy cakes were scoffed by the family, as I fantasised at length about introducing this philosophy to our own garden. something every keen Austerity Housekeeping fan should consider doing. My husband paled somewhat at the thought of the digging, but he’s a good sport, so I am hopeful.

We then made a visit to a hidden orchard at the other end of the village. I have passed this house most days I have lived in the area, and I had no idea that it had a two-acre orchard nestling behind it. There was a combination of fruit trees planted between the 1920s and the 1960s, and a beehive at the back, and local community orchards can borrow the owners’ apple press for a small charge each autumn. This proved to be a great inspiration to us as there is currently a drive to found our own community orchard with historic varieties of Cambridgeshire apples. Watch this space.

For keen cottage garden fans, I’m posting more pictures with key Austerity friendly features below:

Old garden chair upcycled, with a port bottle holder brought back into service as a geranium planter

Every inch of the garden is brimming with espalier fruit trees, colourful bedding plants, fruits, herbs and vegetables, all placed carefully to maximise the space.
Another neighbour made shopping bags for sale, using scraps of fabric leftover from other projects.

Is fat good for us? An historical view of Denmark’s new ‘fat tax’.

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I was interested to read recently that Denmark has introduced a ‘fat tax’ on food. The question is whether this is likely to achieve the desired outcome of reducing obesity? You can read a related report here:

This was of particular interest as I’ve been ploughing through cookbooks and home economics books from the early part of the 20th century over the last year for this blog, and working out the costs and calories involved in these diets, heavy as they were in saturated fat and meat. There are some striking points of comparison to be made.

Most of us simple could not afford to eat as much meat as the average working family put away a hundred years ago (you’d end up spending £70-£80 a week on meat and fish alone for a family of four), and we could not afford to home grow as much produce as many families did – we rely on mass produced fruit and vegetables which works out a lot cheaper, but which are probably lower in nutritional values. The calorific values of our great-grandparents’ diets were much greater than ours, as the meals had a heavy emphasis on animal fats like suet, lard, whole milk, and carbohydrates.

However despite all this eating, people’s average weights were lower, and the only reason for this as far as I can see is the amount of walking they did, and the absence of TV, which meant they engaged in a lot more low level exercise throughout the day instead of slumping on the sofa for hours on end like many of us do. There was less snacking and use of processed foods as well, which may have meant that individual blood sugar and leptin levels may have been controlled differently by people’s bodies. Added to this, previous generations were also shorter on average, and children matured later, probably because of illness in early childhood, and in some cases a poor quality diet deficient in calcium and other vital minerals in the case of deprived households.

Bearing all this in mind, taxing fat seems pointless – it would surely make more sense to focus on increasing engagement in low level exercise for the whole population. However taxing things actively raises money for governments, which makes me suspicious about the motives here, given there is no evidence that just avoiding fat makes you slim (which it doesn’t – if only it were that simple!) Another vested interest might be the food industry, which processes foods to make them low fat, but potentially at the cost of some nutritional values.

Do comment on this blog post if you have views on Denmark’s new policy.

Image: Grant Cochrane /

To sleep, perchance to dream.

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In the modern age, one problem we all have is that so many of us tend to be short of sleep. There are lots of reasons put forward for this, such as the manic pace of life, invention of electric light leading to later evenings, the baffling inability of young children to sleep when they are supposed to, and perhaps the most frustrating, spouses snoring and muttering in their sleep. In terms of dealing with this, there’s a lot written about what’s known as sleep hygiene, but let’s explore some of the most important aspects, along with possible solutions. Some of the information will be familiar, but like all the advice in this blog, it is probably best to see each section as a kind of check-list from which some items will stand out or have particular meaning.  See these as ‘Aha’ moments to be built on later.

Is your bed comfortable, or are you struggling with a dodgy mattress or bedding that is too hot/cold/large/small? Are you breathing in allergens while you sleep?

It all starts here. Begin with a thorough spring clean of your bedroom, including hoovering the mattress and washing the duvet/blankets and pillows on a hot wash (60C, if the care label allows, otherwise follow what it says) and if possible hanging out to dry in the sun, which also kills off that evil beastie, the dust mite, enemy of the people. Avoid keeping things underneath your bed if at all possible, and hoover there regularly as well. If you can’t afford a new mattress, try a mattress topper, or putting a board underneath it to give more support. Your back will thank you for it. Rummage around to see if you have more suitable bedding hidden away somewhere, or failing that, consider investing in new sheets from a supermarket value range or charity shop – ironed white ones always feel more like an upmarket hotel, even if they are polyester cotton mix rather than Egyptian cotton with an obscenely high thread count (anything above 60 threads per inch is sufficient for the luxury feel, by the way). If you are a couple, consider having a single duvet each like our sensible Northern Europeans cousins do, to ensure the best possible sleep (you can always allow your toes to touch modestly if you are feeling affectionate). Air your bed daily (for inspiration, think of all those Swiss chalet  balconies with enormous marshmallow-like eiderdowns flopped over them, competing with the window boxes of red geraniums for space), and if you don’t have time to make it, leave your bed wide open to allow any humidity to evaporate. Change your sheets weekly and make up the bed nicely afterwards, so for at least one day a week it’s looking inviting. Who knows what pleasant unintended consequences of this there might be …?

What is your bedroom like?

Moving swiftly on, if your bedroom is full of work items, electronic gadgets, unironed washing or general household clutter, it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to be a lot harder to settle down in there (this applies to children, televisions and toys as well).  So brace yourself and move anything that’s not truly bedroom related out somewhere else. The bed should be the glorious focal point of the room, with a bedside table and lamp giving off a delicate light ready for reading. A choice novel by the side of the bed invites you to spend ten or fifteen minutes slowing down mentally before going to sleep, and the act of visiting your local library and borrowing a recently published glossy hardback for free gives many a thrifty housekeeper an illicit thrill (and gives the author a small royalty).  Make sure the room is dark enough and the temperature is conducive to sleep (do not do what a friend of mine did and spend a fortune titivating an entire house with great glee only to ignore the heater in the guest room, forcing your friends to sleep in the tasteful antique bed with Egyptian cotton bedding, wrapped in every stitch of clothing they have brought with them and praying morning comes soon! That is surely unnecessary in the 21st century, unless I missed a meeting).  In winter, this might mean making sure you have an extra fluffy blanket to hand, and in summer you might want to air the room for a couple of hours before going to bed, keeping blinds and curtains closed during the hottest part of the day to keep the heat out and protect your fabrics. You might want to arrange a small vase of garden or wild flowers on a table or windowsill, if you get the chance, which always boosts morale, as does displaying your most attractive cosmetics on a dressing table or similar like a 1950s film star. As they say, it’s the little things that matter. Live the dream.

Image: graur codrin /

Books at bedtime?

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What is your bedtime routine? In this age of obsession, there is a lot written about how to get children to sleep well, in fact there’s a whole determined industry surrounding it, but less is written about getting adults to do the same. However similar principles apply. Evenings should feel different from the earlier, busier part of the day. Lighting should be dimmer and more intimate, which has the effect of slowing down the body. Your last meal of the day should be sociable and take place in the early part of the evening, preferably around a table with the rest of the family. Ideally you should then aim to have at least an hour to yourself to unwind after putting children to bed or encouraging teenagers upstairs.  A useful inducement to children to support this is the offer of helpfully removing their pocket money if they bother you after 9pm. Failing that, demonstrating physical affection between parents is another useful weapon in your arsenal as far as older children are concerned.

As any granny will say, you will probably sleep better if you set yourself a bedtime and try to keep to that fairly consistently. At bedtime itself, avoid having the TV on in the corner and/or using the computer while you get ready, as these stimulate the brain in the wrong way for the time of day, as does texting friends or posting on websites. Instead, try to adopt little rituals such as the time-honoured warm bath, pampering skincare regimes (even if it is only using a warm flannel on your face and then dabbing a bit of own brand basic cream here and there), and light reading to make this time of the day enjoyable and relaxing. Wearing nightwear made from natural fibres can also help with developing an overall sense of wellbeing, especially if it helps you maintain the optimum body temperature for sleep. Surprisingly, supermarkets often have very impressive ranges of flattering pyjamas and nightshirts if you feel like indulging at comparatively low cost. If you’re selective, shopping for nightware in such places does not have to mean sporting a compulsory pink fluffy Snoopy motif across your bosoms every evening, like an overgrown nine year old, fatally compromising your sex life for ever. You can find glamour if you rummage a bit.

A postscript to all the sleep advice of the last couple of posts is that obviously in a real life family situation, all of these strategies won’t be possible all of the time, but the more you manage, the better your sleep quality is likely to be. And then you’ll be less grumpy and more able to face what life throws at you.

Image: Maggie Smith /

Any mountain can be conquered after a good night’s rest.